APS News

The Future of Liquid Helium Purchasing

The success of the APS-ACS Liquid Helium Purchasing Program sparks initiative to aid long-term liquid helium demand

July 27, 2016 | Rachel Gaal

After a successful test-run ending in late May 2016, the Liquid Helium Purchasing Program is now in full swing, syncing reliable deliveries and discounted liquid helium to an expanded network of academic users within the United States. The program is a partnership among APS, the American Chemical Society (ACS), and the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency (DLA).

“It started as a pilot program with 7 institutions,” recalled Mark Elsesser, the APS senior policy analyst who oversees the purchase program. “Now we are into the second iteration of the program with 12 universities — for us it’s been a great success, and members are now enrolled for 2 years, receiving helium from the DLA through May 31, 2018.”

The partnership is built upon short-term concerns: the increasing price tag on helium and erratic delivery schedules has placed burdens on physicists and other researchers at their home institutions. Acting as a brokerage, the partnership allows the DLA to negotiate liquid helium contract terms on behalf of academic researchers — saving the program’s enrollees an average of 15 percent.

While the purchase program’s success and growth alleviates the immediate helium crunch, Elsesser emphasizes that the problem of liquid helium supply is far from resolved. “Long term, there are still issues — as helium prices go up, [principal investigators] are spending more and more of their grants on helium, and this is unsustainable,” he says.

To tackle this looming concern, the APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA) approached ACS and the Materials Research Society (MRS) to investigate what it would take to transition users into using less helium, by means of recycling and reuse.

“The recent discovery [of a new deposit] in Tanzania doesn’t change the fact that helium is an irreplaceable, nonrenewable resource,” mentions Elsesser. “That’s why this issue of helium recycling and reuse is so important. My hope is that we can transition more of our users to systems with recycling capabilities, so their future helium purchases will be smaller and more inexpensive.”

The OPA, together with ACS and MRS, plans on releasing a science policy report within the next few months, detailing the long-term effort to move users toward systems that have the capability to recycle and re-liquefy helium being used in experiments.

Ultimately, liquid helium purchases are being tackled full-force to help conserve helium and save grant dollars — so much so, that other liquid helium vendors are reducing their prices even further to bring back previous customers. While this means potential rivalries in store for the purchase program, the end result promotes more accessible liquid helium for researchers and academic institutions in future years.